Willibald von Eichstätt

by Elisabeth Schinagl

One of the most important sentences in ancient philosophy for me comes from Heraclitus and reads panta rhei, everything flows. A sentence that describes the eternal floating of all being between not-yet and no more. This does not only apply to our individual, fleeting existence, to our personal becoming and growing: just as water swells, bubbles, swells, roars, flows, seeps away, sometimes dries up or invisibly makes its way, only to reappear in another, unexpected place, so does our cultural heritage, the knowledge and thinking of generations, which determines our own identity.

Together with my girlfriend, I set off on a beautiful summer’s day in search of a piece of the mosaic of this phenomenon and thus at the same time the place of origin, the source of this story.

The path leads us from Eichstätt, typically along a leisurely flowing river, through the Altmühl valley to the Hahnenkamm, to Heidenheim. A remarkable cathedral rises impressively here, actually much too large for the small town.

It is quiet here, Heidenheim is away from the tourist streams, visitors come only a few. There are no traces left of the original, early medieval monastery and its former church. Only in the Heidenbrünnlein (little fountain) the water bubbles under old trees as it did around the year 750, when a new stream of knowledge, which shaped the times and the area, was fed here.

After centuries, which are hardly comprehensible to us in their literal speechlessness, after the collapse of the late antique Christian empire, after migrations, destruction and disaster, a new spiritual source is tentatively beginning to gush forth: British monks and nuns are christianising the area. They bring back to the old continent what little in cultural education and written language has survived the turmoil of the past centuries.

And here on the Hahnenkamm, one of the germ cells of the new monastic culture is emerging. Two biographies of these missionaries, who brought so much knowledge with and alongside the new faith, have been handed down to us: One about Wunibald, the founder of the monastery, the other about his better known brother Willibald, founder of the diocese of Eichstätt.

The scribe has the most reliable source for his report: Willibald himself dictated to him in the monastery of Heidenheim.

The Latin text of the vita Willibaldi consists of such rough, unstructured formulations that every translator is involuntarily tempted to smooth it out in order to at least approximate it to our modern aesthetic sensibilities. Without a trace of miracle work, it shows a laborious new beginning from the ruins of a lost culture. This new beginning is also reflected in the bumpiness of the language, in its lack of elegance.

In summary, almost condensed, the life of an extraordinary man is described. Of course, the writing material ‘parchment’ is extremely precious; lambs, calves or kids have to be slaughtered so young that they cannot really serve as meat suppliers, because only then is their skin tender enough. So it is important to confine oneself to the most important things, there is no room for extravagant descriptions.

It is about the essential. In Willibald’s case, the essential consists first of all in a journey lasting several years to the visible testimonies of divine truth.

This is not a pleasure or educational journey, as one or the other modern contemporary knows. No, this journey, with all the strains and dangers it involves, is a form of worship. It means leaving the familiar world and getting involved with strangers without reassurance.

It is a matter of taking upon oneself efforts and privations in order to see with one’s own eyes the places of divine work, to enter with one’s own feet holy ground, in order to follow Christ in the literal sense, to convince oneself with one’s own senses of the truth of the Gospels, to become, as it were, an eyewitness of a supernatural truth.

It is necessary to visit churches and monasteries, living proof of the effectiveness of the Christian faith, and to draw from this true source. Only in some places there are fascinating wonders from a foreign world.

The path leads Willibald and his companions, including his father, from Wessex via France to Italy, from the mainland to Sicily, where the relics of Saint Agatha are kept in the city of Catania.

And there is Mount Etna, and if for some reason it breaks out, so that the fire threatens to spread over that area, the inhabitants quickly take the body of the Blessed Virgin Agatha and hold it against the fire and it comes to a halt.

The journey continues to Ephesus, the place of work of the seven sleepers, and then to Jerusalem and the Holy Land, to the sources of the Jordan.

If the author’s attention is otherwise focused exclusively on holy places, this pattern is interrupted at this point; the living beings in this part of the world are too wonderful.

And there are strange large cattle with long backs and short legs, created with large horns. They are all uniformly shell-coloured. The marshes there are deep, and when in the summertime the sun’s heat burns the earth from the sky, these animals rise, go into the marshes and dip their whole bodies up to their heads.

Finally the group of pilgrims returns to Sicily and the Aeolian Islands via Constantinople.

And from there they sailed to the island of Vulcano, where the hell of Theoderich lies. And when they got there, they left the ship to see what the crater looks like. Willibald was immediately curious and wanted to see what the inside of the crater looked like, and he wanted to climb to the top of the mountain below which the crater lay, and he couldn’t because ashes that rose from the dark depths to the edge lay there. And like snow, when white snowflakes snowed down from the sky in masses, filling the earth with enormous heaps of snow, the ashes lay on the mountain top, preventing Willibald from climbing it. Nevertheless, he saw the ominous, terrible flame bursting out of the abyss, and watched as the flame and the steam rose terribly high under a mighty roar like thunder. He saw that pumice, which the scribes usually use, rise from the Hellmouth together with the flame and pour into the sea, and then the sea washes it back to the land, and the people pick it up and take it away.

After this impressive natural spectacle, the pilgrimage leads to Monte Cassino, the monastery of St. Benedict, from where it finally leads to Rome. But here, at Pope Gregory’s, the fruits of years of wandering are guided into new paths. It is important to make the experience gained useful for many, to pass on the knowledge, to become a source for others. Thus the pilgrim becomes the missionary. The Pope sent him to the Franconian Kingdom to support the missionary Bonifaz.

And then he came to Duke Odilo and there he was for a week and from there he went to Suidger and there he was with that one for a week. And from there Suidger and Willibald travelled to Linthard to St. Bonifaz and St. Bonifaz sent them to Eichstätt to see how he liked it. Suidger gave that region of Eichstätt to St. Bonifaz for the redemption of his soul;

and St. Boniface gave that region, which had been completely deserted until then, so that there was nothing there except that church of St. Mary, which is still standing there, smaller than the second church that Willibald had later built there, to Bishop Willibald … When that Willibald was elected bishop, he was 41 years old, and it was autumn at that time. About three weeks before the name day of St. Martin, he was ordained bishop in the place called Sülzenbrücken. And in the place called Eichstätt he began to build a monastery… and with few workers he brought the field of the divine seed from the sowing of the divine word to a rich harvest.

The author of this biography remains unknown, he has withdrawn his personality, as befits a ghostwriter, placing himself entirely at the service of the cause, preserving his incognito. And yet his identity lies encoded and at the same time confidently hidden in the text: in the oldest manuscript, there are four seemingly meaningless lines of text between the two vitae. The author entrusts them with the secret of his identity like a message in a bottle through the flowing time. It takes over 1,200 years before this mystery can be deciphered, but then the sensation is perfect:

Ego una Saxonica nomine Hugeburc ordinando hec scribebam.

I, an Anglo-Saxon named Hugeburc, wrote this down in order.

A woman as an author finally steps out of the darkness of history! There are very few women among the very few who could read and write at that time. Born between 730 and 740 in Wessex and educated in a Southern English monastery, Hugeburc came to Heidenheim as a nun as a relative of Willibald and Wunibald in their entourage. As her confidante, this certainly extraordinary woman passes on to posterity the biographies of two equally extraordinary men.

Willibald von Eichstätt, born around 700 probably in Wessex in England; 787 or 788 in Eichstätt, was an Anglo-Saxon missionary and bishop. He was the brother of Walburga and Wunibald, who were also missionaries and monastery founders.

All italic text passages are taken from the book: Bayerisches Panoptikum (BoD 2012)
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